History is brought to life in the National Theatre’s latest production, Dara. An exotic drama about two warring brothers, the shaping of an empire and the establishment of modern day India and Pakistan; the epic tale is legendary across South Asia.
The classic 17th century story about Prince Dara Shikoh and his brother Aurangzeb comes to life in London’s Southbank. Written and performed in Shakespearean style, director Nadia Fall and writer Tanya Ronder have done a stunning job in this gripping production. Originally adapted by Pakistani dramatist Shahid Nadeem and first performed in the Ajoka theatre in Pakistan, Dara is a fantastic and memorable retelling of the story of the Mughal Empire.
The curtains open to a beautiful set; opulent and royal scenery take centre stage. The backdrop is perfectly representative of Mughal India and its imperial courts (a daunting task considering the Princes’ father was responsible for the building of the Taj Mahal). Full credit must go to Katrina Lindsay for her beautiful choice of ornamental wooden lattice screens, which are used to indicate smooth transitions between place and time.
Each scene change is marked by veiled women dressed in traditional Mughal costume; their full flowing skirts transport the audience to 17th century India as they dance gracefully to Sufi music. Reflective of the central themes of mistrust and deceit, the blue filtered lighting creates a sense of mystification and secrecy in a world where brothers become nemeses.
The intense domestic drama created global consequence in 1659. As a result, the tale is famous and frequently told by the people of India and Pakistan, but how can its historical weight be explained to London audiences? The key challenge of presenting the story lies in the complexity of its characters, the focal point of Islam and its cultural context.
Ronder successfully conducts an appropriate history lesson through a series of flashbacks. Swift scene changes move between past and present, complementing each other perfectly. Idyllic family-oriented scenes from the past provide light relief from the sombre setting of the present, maintaining the audience’s attention. Perhaps this was better done in the second half rather than the first which almost seemed jarring.
As Dara progresses, it becomes clear that it is much more than a family drama or the struggle for political power. The brothers may be fighting for the entirety of the Mughal Empire, but what is absolutely central to the narrative is the role of Islam, which is vested in each character’s speech. Shah Jahan’s favouritism may be what incites Aurangzeb’s tirade against Dara, but it is Islam that is his driving force. Islam becomes his weapon, and religion becomes justification for fratricide.
Using Dara and Aurangzeb as vehicles for opposing discourse on Islamic values, the play opens a compelling debate about the nature of the religion. Dara’s liberalism is much loved by his people, whereas Aurganzeb’s extremism and austerity instils fear and hatred across India. A courtroom scene where Dara is tried for apostasy pits Aurangzeb’s fundamentalism directly against Dara’s Sufi-influenced mysticism.
In a captivating and utterly convincing performance as Dara, Zubin Varla delivers a powerful speech on the beauty of acceptance; “open-mindedness is the wellspring of who we [Muslims] are.”
The debate is certainly relevant considering the current political climate, with Islam coming into scrutiny after the recent Paris attacks. It is in Dara’s courtroom speech where the play’s script comes to life and its eloquence can truly be appreciated. Dara’s desperate plea for religious enlightenment costs him his life, but makes perfect sense.
While the play is eponymous to Dara, it is Aurangzeb who is the most complex character. It is Aurangzeb for whom our emotions change from hatred, to sympathy, to pity, to despair. Aurangzeb’s complexity lies in his history; his ill treatment as a child, the loss of his true love – a Hindu slave girl – and his desperation to find inner peace. Perhaps Dara could have focused on the relationship between the two brothers more, through direct interaction between the characters, who remarkably do not share many close scenes. It feels slightly unfulfilling that while Dara is given the opportunity to defend his beliefs, Aurangzeb is never allowed a platform to explain his religious philosophy.
An ambitious production, fulfilling its potential through a riveting script and exquisite production values, Dara is a fantastic portrayal of the history of Mughal India.